Across the length and breadth of the country, Nigerians of voting age, came out to elect Chief Moshood Abiola on June 12, 1993, who despite running alongside a fellow Muslim, garnered sufficient votes to win the presidential poll. In a dramatic twist however, the military government cancelled the election, sparking violent skirmishes nationwide, which culminated in the arrest, imprisonment and eventual death in mysterious circumstance of Abiola five years later. In this piece, DIRISU YAKUBU examines the significance of June 12 in the nation’s political history
Some have described it (June 12) as the biggest singular event, trailing perhaps only the attainment of independence in 1960. On June 12, 1993, 14 million Nigerians came out to exercise their civic responsibility and they did so with relish. Everywhere, Nigerians in their numbers craved an end to military dictatorship and were patient enough to ensure General Ibrahim Babangida’s maradonic transition programme to democracy eventually came to fruition. They were wrong!
The phased transition programme, which took the form of diarchy, had already seen elected governors sworn-in at the various states, with the presidential election left to send the military back to the barracks.
In his usual crafty disposition, gap-toothed Babangida, working hand-in-gloves with some civilian collaborators had disqualified the leading presidential candidates, Mallam Adamu Ciroma of the National Republican Convention and Shehu Yar’ Adua of the Social Democratic Party. As it were, the reasons advanced for their disqualification rested on allegations of fraudulent electoral manipulation in the primaries conducted by the two parties.
Their disqualification would later pave way for the emergence of billionaire businessman and philanthropist, Bashorun Moshood Abiola for the SDP and Kano-based businessman, Bashir Tofar for the NRC. Both men were friends of IBB; a development the retired general complained bitterly about in his conversation with veteran journalist, Dan Agbese.
As captured by Agbese in his brilliant biography of the Minna-Born General, titled, “Ibrahim Babangida: The Military, Politics and Power in Nigeria,” IBB recalled sharing with his trusted allies his worries that the standard bearers in the two-party system he foisted on the nation were his friends.
“I told him (Tofa) in the presence of about 13 of his colleagues. I advised him not to seek election, I didn’t support him. He was not a winning candidate,” Agbese quoted the self-styled former military president as saying.
As it were, Abiola was certainly not in the league of his NRC’s counterpart, having made himself popular with financial donations to worship centres (mosques and churches inclusive), sporting events as well as sponsorship of financially-handicapped children in elementary, secondary and higher institutions of learning across the land.
Tofa, who had picked a southern Christian, Sylvester Ugoh, as his running mate was tipped by many pundits to clinch the grand prize just as Abiola’s decision to run on a joint ticket with a fellow Muslim, Babagana Kingibe, was labelled insensitive. But despite the religious plurality of the Nigerian State, Abiola was coasting home to victory when the election was annulled by General Babangida, on the advice of Arthur Nzeribe-led Association for Better Nigeria.
The annulment sparked violent protest across the nation as democracy advocates, the media, civil society organisations among others, put their lives on the line in demand for the announcement of the result of the exercise.
Unable to stand the heat, the military dictator “stepped aside” and handed over to London-trained lawyer, Ernest Shonekan, as head of the Interim National Government, who barely a few months in the saddle, was shoved aside by General Sani Abacha.
There are unverified claims that Abacha had promised to restore Abiola’s mandate but with no visible commitment to deliver on that pledge, if ever he made one, Abiola took his destiny in his hands by declaring himself the President of Nigeria. Events that followed would culminate in the death of Abiola in 1998 in questionable circumstances after the dark-goggled General had joined his ancestors a year earlier.
The man who succeeded Abacha, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, inherited a pariah state. The International community, having ostracized Nigeria and impose a legion of sanctions against her during the bloody rein of Abacha, rendered Abubakar with no choice than to find ways of righting the wrongs collectively inflicted on Africa’s largest nation by the duo of Babangida and Abacha.
The military for the first time, agreed that the South-West whose son, Abiola, was not only denied his mandate but had his wife, Kudirat killed in broad day light by suspected agents of the state and died himself while in government custody, should be allowed to produce an elected President. They brought in the civil war hero, General Olusegun Obasanjo, who would go on to win the election on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party in 1999 and repeated the feat four years later in 2003.
However, persistent advocacy to have June 12 declared a public holiday over the years, fell on deaf ears as successive administrations stuck with the May 29 handover date for years. Only the South-West States of Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Ondo and Ekiti, then in the grip of the defunct Alliance for Democracy honoured the heroes and heroines of June 12 by observing the day as a public holiday.
At the national level, immediate past President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), finally honoured the democracy martyr, MKO Abiola in 2019 when, in addition to declaring the day a public holiday, bestowed the prestigious Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger on the late business mogul.
Questions have been asked in the past, all centering on the significance of June 12 in the nation’s tortious journey to democracy. Would there have been May 29 if there was no June 12? Would Obasanjo, who gave scant regard even in death to Abiola, have been President if MKO had not died in prison?
Speaking exclusively with The PUNCH, Senior Advocate of Nigeria and a June 12 campaigner, Mike Ozekhome, said June 12 beautified Nigeria’s democracy, arguing that in the history of post-independent Nigeria, no election has come close to the June 12, 1993 presidential poll.
He said, “June 12 is the real Democracy Day, not May 29. I crusaded for this for years before former President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) declared it so about 3 years ago. I indeed moved the motion for its actualization at the 2014 National Conference.”
Like Ozekhome, another SAN and the immediate past Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, said the historic date was revered for sundry reasons chief of which is the discovery of the democracy’s incredible mileage in terms of the power it placed in the hands of the people.
“The significance of June 12 is that Nigerians were able to discover that the worst form of democracy is better than the best of dictatorship. Nigerians have since realized after the June 12 struggle that it is better to quarrel amongst ourselves and keep developing our democracy than to return to military rule; hence you can see that after the last election, when some of these younger elements were more or less calling for interim government and some unconstitutional interventions because of their disappointment over their candidates’ failure; the elders in their camps called them to order. They had no idea they were playing with fire. So, the stability we are enjoying today in terms of the longest run of democratic rule since 1960 is attributable to the June 12 struggle. And thanks to our President, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, and other pro-democracy forces, we find ourselves here today,” Keyamo said.
A chieftain of the Arewa Consultative Forum, Anthony Sani, shares in the belief that despite the annulment of the election that would have brought Abiola to power, Nigeria’s democracy has gained a lot in terms of the people understanding the powers they own and their willingness to commit to the very tenets of constitutional democracy.
In a telephone conversation with our correspondent, Sani urged Nigerians to remember that the biggest take away from the historic June 12 was that Abiola died for the nation’s democracy to be firmly rooted and sustained over the years.
His words: “The significance of June 12 Democracy Day is the freedom of choice which democracy confers on the people on how they want to be governed, and for which MKO Abiola died. The election of June 12, 1993 was regarded as the freest and fairest that produced Chief Abiola as the winner, yet the elections were annulled by the military regime.
So, June 12 every year is celebrated to commemorate the elections as symbol of democracy, which has come to stay in Nigeria for common good. And since the good things of life are not given freely but attained by ceaseless hard work by both leaders and the led, the commemoration of June 12, also provide opportunity to assess progress against plans by way of both trend and cross assessment of performance for purpose of improvement.”
Democracy may be enjoying global acceptance as arguably the best model of government but its willingness to accommodate the very forces that made life hellish for martyrs, leaves more questions than answers. At the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission popularly known as Oputa Panel many years ago, Nigerians were treated to tales of sorrow, tears and blood as Sergeant Barnabas Msheila fondly called Sergeant Rogers told the world how the Abacha Strike Force under the command of Major Hamza Al-Mustapha ordered the killings of Abacha’s perceived enemies including the leader of the National Democratic Coalition, Pa Alfred Rewane, and Abiola’s wife, Kudirat and a host of others.
Publisher of The Guardian, Alex Ibru, was shot and had to be flown overseas for medical treatment to stand a chance of living while Afenifere leader, Pa Abraham Adesanya, escaped unhurt after bullets were rained down heavily on his car in Lagos. Yet, the very persons who never wanted democracy to thrive in the land, attempted with varying degree of success, to reap its fruits. IBB himself tried unsuccessfully to vie for the Presidency on PDP platform in 2007 and Major Al-Mustapha, Abacha’s Chief Security Officer, was the presidential candidate of the Action Alliance in the 2023 general election. Shame!